7 things that Bruins fans should be thankful for so far this season

Bruins

The Bruins have plenty to be thankful for in the midst of a 13-1-3 start to the new season.

Boston Bruins starting goaltender Linus Ullmark (35) celebrates with his teammate goaltender Jeremy Swayman (1) after they defeated the Florida Panthers 4-3 during overtime period NHL action at TD Garden.
Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman have played a key role in the Bruins’ strong start this season. Matthew J. Lee / The Boston Globe

So much for all of the doom and gloom predicted for the Boston Bruins heading into this season.

After Boston’s record-setting run in 2022-23 came to a shocking end in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, fears of an extensive retooling were stoked time and time again over a painful summer.

Franchise stalwarts in Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci hung up their skates. Key cogs in Taylor Hall, Tyler Bertuzzi, Connor Clifton, Dmitry Orlov, Nick Foligno, and Tomas Nosek all either left in free agency or were traded.

But through the first month-plus of a new NHL campaign, Bruins fans have had little to fret over.

Entering Wednesday night, the Bruins are 13-1-3, boasting the best record in the NHL.

And while the Bruins have a long way to go if they want to atone for last spring’s crushing collapse, this revamped roster has already answered some questions (and reversed a few narratives) regarding the state of this Original Six franchise.

With us now in the season of gratitude, here’s a look at seven things that Bruins fans should be grateful for so far this season.

An elite goalie rotation

Jim Montgomery might have said it best after Boston’s 5-2 win over the Sabres on Nov. 14.

“The singular reason why we have the record we have is because of our goaltenders,” Montgomery said. “We’re still giving up way too much. Even tonight in the last 30 minutes, we gave up way too much off the rush and that’s an area that we significantly have to improve. They’re hiding or masking how poor we are right now at defending the rush.”

At this stage of the 2023-24 season, it’s fair to tab this Bruins squad as one of the best in the Eastern Conference.

But an elite Cup contender? Such a designation likely wouldn’t be the case if it wasn’t for both Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark serving as brick walls every single time they’ve been called upon.

The Bruins’ plans of allocating a nearly 50/50 split in reps between Swayman and Ullmark has paid dividends, with Monday’s loss to the Lightning standing as the first time this season that a goalie has earned consecutive starts all year.

Among NHL netminders with at least five starts this season, Swayman ranks fifth in save percentage at .933. Ullmark is ninth in the same category at .928.

Their underlying numbers are just as sterling.

Of the 42 goalies this season who have logged at least 400 minutes of ice time this year, Swayman (8.72) and Ullmark (6.42) rank third and seventh, respectively, in goals saved above average. Ullmark is fourth in save percentage on high-danger shots (.867), while Swayman is fifth (.859).

Boston’s defense still has some work to do on rush chances, while Montgomery has harped on his forwards to kill more plays before the puck crosses over into the neutral zone.

But as the Bruins continue to tinker with the finer details of their game, the duo of Swayman and Ullmark are keeping Boston in just about every contest this season — a sizable advantage that should carry over to the playoffs this time around. 

Brandon Carlo 

As expected, the pillars of Boston’s success this season have been rooted in its goaltending and a stingy zone defense implemented by Claude Julien and further refined by both Bruce Cassidy and Montgomery.

Charlie McAvoy has taken another step forward in his ascension as one of the top blueliners in the NHL, especially in the offensive zone (13 points in 13 games).

But the case can be made that the steadiest option on Boston’s blue line this season has been Carlo — who has solidified himself as a top-four stalwart at this stage of his career.

Now finally healthy after a serious stretch of concussions and other injuries, the 26-year-old Carlo is playing the best hockey of his career.

Along with his sizable contributions on the league’s top penalty-kill unit (90.8 percent), Carlo has been a defensive equalizer at 5v5 play.

Of the 579 NHLers this season who have logged at least 100 minutes of 5v5 reps, Carlo ranks 555th in offensive-zone start percentage at 26.88 (per Natural Stat Trick).

But even with plenty of his shifts set against top-six opponents (and usually starting in Boston’s own end), the Bruins are still outscoring teams, 11-5, in Carlo’s 273:21 of 5v5 ice time.

And even though Carlo isn’t necessarily known as an offensive conduit, he is on pace for a career-best 24 points this season.

“He’s been excellent,” Montgomery said of Carlo on Monday. “He’s a steady rock back there. His offensive confidence, you can tell how involved he is. … he does a lot of things defensively, he puts out a lot of fires, a lot of mistakes that other teammates are making. It’s why he’s so valuable to us and inside our locker room and his teammates love him.”

A promising youth movement 

It’s not necessarily a surprise that some of the architects of Boston’s record-setting run last year have left their fingerprints all over another impressive start this fall.

But as the Bruins look to navigate through the Post-Bergeron Era, they have been buoyed by several younger players who have injected some spark (and tangible production) into the lineup.

Despite a recent (and expected) lull, 19-year-old Matt Poitras is staying up in the NHL ranks this season — with the young pivot offering hope that Boston’s future is bright with another potential top-six stalwart in place.

Pressed into service following an injury to Matt Grzelcyk, 22-year-old Mason Lohrei has offered glimpses of the offensive dynamo that Boston hopes he can develop into on the back end.

Both Poitras and Lohrei offer high ceilings as potential featured fixtures in the next generation of Bruins talent.

But the case can be made that the most consistent youngster on Boston’s roster has been rookie Johnny Beecher — who has solidified his spot as the team’s fourth-line center.

Along with his strong faceoff numbers (53.0 percent) and stout defensive game against daunting assignments, Beecher has tallied two goals and made his presence felt on the forecheck on several shifts this season. 

A pair of top-six centers 

The top question lingering over this Bruins team going into a new season was how both Pavel Zacha and Charlie Coyle would fare in featured top-six roles at the center position.

Of course, few fans expected both veteran pivots to completely replicate the elite production and two-way mastery that both Bergeron and Krejci provided whenever they hopped over the boards. 

But so far, both Coyle and Zacha have looked the part as impact players at critical junctures of the lineup.

Through the first 17 games of the Bruins’ season, Coyle is on pace for 29 goals and 72 points.

Zacha? 34 goals and 68 points.

Both would be career-highs for the forwards, with each doing their part to drive play alongside a supporting cast of wingers featuring Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, Trent Frederic, and James van Riemsdyk.

Their stingy defensive game and regular reps on the penalty kill are just icing on the cake as both forwards continue to evolve into 200-foot dynamos.

“Pav, he’s such a gifted player — very similar mind to Bergy in the way that he plays and defends and an extremely dangerous threat in the offensive zone,” Brad Marchand said after Boston’s 5-2 win over Montreal on Saturday. “So he’s feeling very comfortable in that middle spot there now and it’s great to see him thrive.”

David Pastrnak’s evolution as a playmaker

We all are well aware of the damage that Pastrnak can dole out in the offensive zone thanks to his blistering one-timer and array of dekes and dangles.

But the Bruins’ top offensive spark is far more than just an elite goal-scorer, as evidenced by his adaptable role as Boston’s top playmaker.

With opposing teams crafting their game plans around negating Pastrnak’s shot on both the power play and 5v5 play, the 27-year-old winger has been looking to pass more and more this season — feeding his teammates for one-timer blasts and easy tap-ins after drawing skaters out of their defensive structure.

Even without Bergeron and Krejci, Pastrnak is still on pace for 58 goals and a whopping 140 points this season. 

“He’s the guy — the power play is going through him a lot,” Montgomery said of Pastrnak on Saturday. “And because of that, we move him around so that it changes the angles. … He understands seams and holes better than we do. Like I remember I talked to him about a play just a week ago. He’s like, ‘I don’t need to see the video. I know what you’re talking about.’ Like that’s how good his memory is and how smart his spatial awareness is of the ice.”

James van Riemsdyk

With the Bruins saddled with little in terms of cap flexibility this summer (and plenty of roster holes to fill), Don Sweeney and his staff took a page out of the “Moneyball” script — signing veterans and other castoffs to short-term, affordable deals in hopes of finding value without breaking the bank.

So far, van Riemsdyk has been a home run.

He may not be the regular 30-goal threat he was during his prime years with Toronto and Philadelphia, but the 34-year-old winger has proven that his dip in production last year (12 goals, 29 points in 61 games) might have been a byproduct of being on a dreadful Flyers team.

So far this season, van Riemsdyk is on pace for 24 goals and 63 points in his first year with Boston — developing into a useful weapon on the power play thanks to his size and passing ability at the netfront spot.

His chemistry with both Coyle and Frederic has given Montgomery the option of deploying a hefty middle-six grouping capable of possessing the puck for extended stretches — and landing punches in the offensive zone.

Unsung heroes 

As is the case with every strong NHL roster, there have been several other underrated players who have all pulled on the rope during Boston’s impressive start.

Derek Forbort’s contributions on the penalty kill have been well-documented over his first two seasons with Boston. But the presumed Achilles heel in his game (5v5 play) has been far from an issue so far in 2023-24.

Much like Carlo, Forbort hasn’t had plenty of starts in the offensive zone at 5v5 action this year (36.54). But the Bruins have still outscored teams by a 10-2 margin during the veteran’s 184:55 of 5v5 reps this season.

Up front, Trent Frederic is offering up some optimism that his breakout season last year was not an outlier. As Montgomery continues to sort through his forward grouping, keeping Coyle and Frederic stapled at the hip needs to be a priority. 


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